Earlier this month I read an article Overcoming overconsumption before it consumes us about a new film Consumed – inside the belly of the beast and it triggered some thoughts I’ve been meaning to write about for some time.
The article refers to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, arguing that we meet our need for esteem and social status through consuming, and that with basic physiological needs taken care of by industrial society we now have the time and brain space to be fixated on consuming. The authors write, “Sadly, in the search for esteem, status or prestige via consumption, we seem to lose sight of the love/belonging segment of Maslow’s pyramid and our chances of moving onto to some form of self-actualization appear increasingly remote.” I’m not keen on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – too linear and individualistic. I find the social neuroscience model SCARF (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness) much more useful as its not hierarchical – for more on SCARF see my next post ‘Thriving at work’.
But Maslow aside, I would agree that consuming is how many people attempt to meet basic human emotional needs of status, belonging, and esteem.
Most interesting was this comment posted by Alan Zulch, “Our compulsion to consume is certainly a symptom of something, and it seems compelling to me that it is, ultimately, a conditioned response to modernity’s futile search for meaning and fulfillment through the acquisition of material things and experiences. And, IMO, this futile search is itself a symptom of our western worldview in which we mistakenly believe ourselves to be separate from nature and each other. Conditioned from the start to have this gap – and reinforced by endless messaging – we thus consume ever more but can ‘never get enough of what we don’t really need’.”
I’d agree with this for two very different (but interrelated) reasons.
Firstly, it seems to relate to a report published last year by WWF and others ‘Common Cause: the case for working with our cultural values’, which described how the language we use can activate and strengthen either intrinsic or extrinsic values. Intrinsic values are ‘greater than self’ and are associated with empathy or others and concern for human rights and the environment. Extrinsic values are associated with financial success, status and self-advancement. In the 2002 BBC documentary ‘The Century of the Self’ by Adam Curtis (his best IMO) we hear how the PR and advertising industries harnessed the power of language and image to create false needs and desires, and turn us into insatiable consumers.
The comment above also reminds me of traditional taoist chinese medicine I came across a few years ago. I’m no doubt oversimplifying, but being disconnected from nature could affect the element Earth (associated with being centred, grounded). An Earth disharmony may mean the stomach can’t digest as well – both literally and metaphorically in the sense of making meaning from experiences. The spleen wouldn’t be as capable of extracting energy (chi) from food to nourish the body. Indeed a spleen disharmony could manifest as someone not being able to satisfy their need for nourishment – always seeking more.. and yet more.. There is a considerable body of psychological research showing that connection to nature enhances sense of wellbeing.
Connection to nature is a vital aspect of the intrinsic ‘greater than self’ value. If it’s too weak then it wont motivate people to change their behaviour as consumers.
In my work over the past years I’ve often noticed how people think their organisations can do change without really changing. Real change is difficult and scary, and too much like hard work. So they tinker around with ‘business as usual’, sometimes managing to create a convincing illusion of change.
Climate change, scarcity of natural resources, and biodiversity loss are major threats to our quality of life. Humans are a very resourceful and resilient species, and life will no doubt go on in some form. But if we are to avoid huge trauma to large sections of humanity, then radical transformation in lifestyle has to happen because if everyone in the world consumed at the levels we do in the UK we would need 3 planets’ worth of resources!
A new type of business model is required, that meets these challenges and operates with benign or even restorative impact on the natural world and on human quality of life. This is explored in a separate blog ‘life-friendly impact‘.